The Good Fight

TvlA4iu0QPinzH73TPpYigI don’t usually pay much attention to Facebook memes, but I saw one a few years ago that really spoke to me.  It was a quote from Mary Anne Radmacher that read, “Courage does not always roar.  Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.'”  I think I remembered that quote because I found a lot of wisdom in her words, and some much-needed encouragement as well.

We live in a world where it is almost impossible to escape from the constant roar of angry voices around us.  It comes at us from all angles:  social media, the daily news, even conversations with friends and acquaintances.  And of course there is much in this world to provoke our anger, and many injustices that need to be corrected and many problems that need to be solved.  There never has been, or probably never will be, any shortage of things to be angry about, in either our personal lives or in the society we live in.  But the problem is, simply expressing our anger isn’t actually going to fix a thing.

It’s easy to point out injustices and issues, and speak out against them, loudly and frequently.  Nothing could be simpler than to point the finger of blame and to ridicule and demonize those who look at things a bit differently.  And few things are more comfortable than surrounding ourselves in a cloak of self-righteous, moral superiority.  Which is exactly why we all behave that way once in a while, and why some of us seem to get stuck in that mode.  Sadly, venting can become a habit and anger tends to breed even more anger.

But actually correcting injustices and solving problems requires so much more than simply speaking out.  It also requires a whole lot of hard work and sustained effort.  It often means we have to make some personal sacrifices, and it usually means that we have to be in dialogue with, and sometimes even work with, the very people who made us angry in the first place.  But mostly, fixing long-term and complex problems requires a whole lot of patience and persistence.

Like most people, I prefer quick and easy to solutions to the problems I face, both in my personal life and in the world around me.  But real life rarely works that way.  Which means that sometimes I’m going to feel so frustrated and discouraged that I just want to either lash out in anger or simply throw up my hands and walk away in despair.  Yet that is exactly the time when I need to dig down deep in myself and find the strength to carry on, moving forward with patience, an open mind, and the quiet resolve to make things better.

In other words, I have to find the courage to “try again tomorrow.”

Positively Right

IMG_0709Have you ever had one of those dreams that seems so real you had a hard time convincing yourself it wasn’t, and the emotions you felt in the dream stay with you long after you wake up?  I once dreamed that my husband was cheating on me by dating the entire University of Iowa cheerleading squad, and also had the gall to tell me that it was “no big deal.”  I was so angry when I woke up that it was all I could do not to slap him.  And even though I knew it was just a dream, it still took me a few days before I quit glaring at him.

Which just goes to show how easy it is to get worked up about things that didn’t even happen and aren’t even real.  And sadly, I’m not just talking about exceptionally vivid dreams.  Or even all those annoying social media memes that are designed to generate outrage and anger, as dangerous as they can be to our emotional health.  What I’m talking about is much simpler:  how strongly our outlook (or our internal dialogue) can influence our mood and how we perceive the world around us.

When I’m feeling crabby, I have no problem finding things to fuel and sustain that mood.  A friend who is too busy to go to lunch with me is obviously tiring of my friendship;  the receptionist at the doctor’s office who doesn’t return a call right away must be incompetent; the driver who hesitates a bit too long when the light turns green absolutely has to be talking on a cell phone.  None of those things may be true, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling rejected, annoyed or self-righteously outraged.

It’s actually kind of scary how easy it is to react with very real anger and hurt to something that doesn’t exist anywhere except in my tiny little mind.  But the good news is that I can do something about it.

I can pay attention to that little voice in my head, and I can also rein it back in when it becomes too negative.  I can remember that most of the time, I honestly have no idea why people do the things they do and that nothing good can come from automatically attributing the worst possible motivation to other people’s actions.  And more importantly, I can remember that it’s almost always best to give other people the benefit of the doubt, at least until they have given me a good reason not to.

I used to think that people who believe in the power of a positive attitude were the sort of people who never really stopped believing in Santa Claus and who tended to buy into pyramid schemes with their spare money.  But the older I get, the more I realize that my attitude is not only one of the few things in my life I can actually control, but that the harder I try to keep it positive, the happier I’ll be.  And when I am happy rather than crabby, it’s just so much easier to also be patient, tolerant and most important of all…kind.  It really is as simple as that.

Right Now

Recently, I was in line at a drive-up ATM, behind a man who was obviously conducting several banking transactions.  He was definitely taking longer than usual and another car pulled up behind me as I waited.  When I glanced in my rear-view mirror, I could see the woman behind me shaking her head and getting more and more agitated.  Suddenly, she pulled out of line and roared across the parking lot to the walk-up ATM.  Ignoring several dozen empty parking spots, she parked in the driving lane right in front of the bank, jumped out and ran up the the ATM.  I guess she was in a hurry to do her banking.

When did we begin to believe that having to wait, even for a few minutes, was such a bad thing?  When did it become a huge imposition to have to actually stop for a red light, or wait in traffic for a few seconds while the car in front of us tries to make a left-turn?  When did we begin to think that we deserve everything we want right this very second, and heaven help anyone who happens to get in our way?

I know there are times when we all get impatient.  When I’m in line at the grocery store and the person in front of me hands the checkout clerk a thick wad of coupons, and then argues vehemently and at great length when the clerk scans them and declares that most of them are expired, I feel impatient.  I do believe that people who behave that way are being inconsiderate to the rest of us.  But waiting in line is still a part of the personal shopping experience, and it’s really not that bad.  (There’s a reason the grocery stores display the tabloids by the check out counters:  it gives us something to read while we wait.)

For me, it helps to put things into perspective, and remember that the world does not revolve around me and wasn’t designed to enable me to rush forward at top speed all day long.  Year ago, my family was driving to Chicago to visit my parents.  We’d been zipping right along for most of the trip, when suddenly the highway traffic came to a complete halt.  We sat for forty-five minutes without moving an inch, for no reason we could see.  Both my husband and I complained bitterly, especially after our young son told us that he was going to need a bathroom break very soon.  We were all feeling well and truly sorry for ourselves, and angry that the authorities hadn’t managed to get the traffic moving yet.

Then we noticed the Med-Vac helicopters flying overhead and realized that there must have been a really bad accident ahead.  Obviously several people were hurt so badly that needed to be flown to the nearest hospital.  And just like that, our anger and indignation about sitting on the highway for so long disappeared.  Getting to Chicago “on time” didn’t seem like such a big deal anymore.

IMG_0136I believe we are quickly becoming a society of people who operate on the false assumption that immediate gratification is something we are entitled to.  We aren’t.  Sometimes we do have to wait in a slow line, and sometimes we are going to have our busy schedule interrupted by other people and things we can’t control.  When that happens, we can choose to fly into a self-centered rage, or we can take a few deep breaths and realize that sometimes, these things just happen.  And that learning to wait patiently now and then isn’t really such a bad thing.

Look For It

IMG_1907One evening I was driving down the highway, my mind busy with its usual jumble of thoughts and concerns, when I came over the top of a hill and suddenly realized that I was driving straight into a spectacular sunset.  It was just gorgeous, complete with a fiery red sun that radiated streaks of color across the sky as it dipped slowly into the horizon.  I remember being surprised, because I have always associated beautiful sunsets with beach vacations, where the highlight of my day is often standing on a beach and watching the sun sink into the ocean.  I couldn’t quite remember the last time I’d noticed a sunset in my hometown of St. Louis, since my house sits too low to see either sunsets or sunrises.  And yet there it was:  a sunset just as spectacular as anything I’ve ever witnessed on a beach vacation, even without the ocean.

Simply put, the sunset surprised me because I wasn’t looking for it.  When I drive on the local highways, I’m watching for bad drivers, traffic jams and the upcoming exit I need.  I may even be keeping an eye out for an interesting billboard.  But I am most definitely not expecting to see a sunset….even though the sun does set in St. Louis every night, just as it does all over the world.

I believe that all too often, we tend to see just exactly what we are looking for, no more and no less.  Which means that if we are looking for signs that the world is a horrible place and becoming worse by the moment, we will see them.  If we are looking for rejection in our relationships, contempt from people who are different from us, and incompetence from coworkers, we will see it.  Because sometimes those things are there.  But if we look for acts of kindness and compassion, for creative solutions to long-term problems, for areas where the world around us is actually improving, we will see those things as well.  Because the good things are also there, but we have to be willing to see them.

I spend my days volunteering at an open-admission animal shelter which rescues unwanted, neglected and abused animals on a daily basis.  Sometimes I see and hear things that make me doubt in the basic goodness of the human race.  But if I choose to look for it, I also see things that warm my heart:  people who take the time to bring in the stray and lost dogs they see wandering the streets, people who donate supplies and give so freely of their time and money, or a once-neglected dog prancing happily out the door with his new adoptive family.  Usually, the mood I am in when I go home from the shelter depends entirely upon what I choose to focus on when I’m down there.

Just like my surprise urban sunset, there is beauty to be found in almost any situation, even during those times when it is least expected.  And I hope that I always remember to just look for it……

Moving Forward

I have what is referred to as a “pear-shaped” body, which is a kind way of saying that my upper thighs are a size bigger than the rest of me.  I complained about this for years before I finally lost the fifteen pounds that I was sure would give me the body shape I wanted.  It didn’t.  I still had the same body shape, just two sizes smaller.  Which meant that I still had an awful time finding pants that fit me, and I complained bitterly about that until a friend (who I’m sure was tired of listening to me whine about the same old thing) suggested I try having my pants altered to fit me.  So now I buy my pants on sale so that I can afford to take them to a tailor, who takes them in at the waist.  And just like that, my long-term wardrobe problem was solved.

I’m not going to lie:  I’m good at complaining.  Complaining comes as naturally to me as worrying, probably because they are closely related and tend to feed off each other.  It’s just who I am, and I’ve learned to accept that.  But what I have also learned is that the trick is to remember to move beyond complaining to actively trying to address the problem I happen to be complaining about.

It’s okay to recognize my worries and express my concerns as long as I realize that complaining isn’t going to solve a thing.  Complaining simply names the problem, but if I actually want to fix the problem, then that’s going to require some sort of action on my part.  Sometimes that’s as simple as finding a good tailor, while other times, of course, the problems are much more serious and complicated.

IMG_1157But even when the problems are huge and completely beyond my personal control, I can still do my part to try to make things better.  I can join groups that are working to change public policy, and I can volunteer with agencies that address the issues I care about.  For instance, I may not be able to single-handedly save all the homeless dogs, but I most certainly can spend my time at the local animal shelter, doing everything in my power to make the lives of the dogs there just a little bit easier.

It’s easy, I think, to fall into the pattern of simply pointing out the many problems we see around us and to believe that is as far as we need to go, or as far as we can go.  But I’ve discovered that when I do that, I end up feeling helpless, overwhelmed, and depressed.  Far better to see problems as something that need fixing, and to recognize that there is often something we can do to help solve them.  Not only does that make the world a better place, but it empowers us to discover that we really are capable of making a positive impact.

Moving from merely complaining to active problem solving is just as good for us as it is for the ones we are trying to help.  And in my case, it means that I finally have pants that fit.

Look for the Good

img_3836My husband and I always put up the artificial Christmas tree in our living room on the weekend after Thanksgiving and we usually leave it up through the first week in January.  That means that each year, the tree is in our living room for at least six weeks.  It’s a beautiful tree, lit with old-fashioned bulb lights (I finally found a few sets that work) and loaded with antique ornaments.  Still, almost every day I find it necessary to make some small adjustment:  an ornament moved to a “better” spot, a green light swapped for a red, a branch tweaked an inch or so to the left.  Because no matter how pretty my Christmas tree may be, whenever I look at it, I somehow manage to see some small imperfection that needs to be “fixed.”

Sadly, my habit of focusing on the negative extends far beyond Christmas decorating.  Sometimes the animal shelter where I volunteer is very full of dogs, and occasionally there are days when we don’t have enough people to get them all out for their daily walk.  And when that happens, I don’t head home from my volunteer shift feeling good about all the dogs that I did help that day.  Instead, I fret about the dogs that I wasn’t able to walk, and often end up feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

The same thing even happens with my blog.  If a particular post gets 200 views and 43 likes, I am usually quite happy with that, at least for a little while.  But then (and I’m almost ashamed to admit this) I often start to wonder just exactly why those other 157 people who viewed my post didn’t like it.  Which is just ridiculous, especially when I remember that when I started my blog I didn’t think I’d ever reach 200 followers, much less write a post that had that many views.

Of course I am very aware of all that is positive, beautiful and good in my life, and I do appreciate it.  I really do.  It’s just that I have this annoying habit of paying far too much attention to the things that aren’t going right, to the goals that I’m not able to accomplish, and to all those minor imperfections that are a normal part of everyone’s life.  And I really, really, want to stop doing that.

My husband and I just spent an unhappy couple of hours stringing some mini lights on the real Christmas tree that we put up in our basement family room.  We decided to try mini lights this year because they stay cool and are light-weight enough for this tree’s delicate branches, but I found them hard to work with because they don’t have clips to hold them in place.  We also had to replace an insanely tiny fuse and run back to the store for another strand.  Soon, we will hang the ornaments, and if I win the argument with my husband this year, we might even add some tinsel.

I am quite sure that the finished result won’t be perfect.  But I am equally sure that when we are done decorating this tree, it will be beautiful.  And I have made a solemn promise to myself that when I look at that tree, all I am going to notice is the beauty.  It may seem like a small thing, but I’ve got to start somewhere.

Falling Down ?

img_0919It’s taken a while, but the cool weather of Fall has finally arrived where I live.  And I’m not especially happy about it.  I’ve been feeling a bit down all day, ever since waking up this morning and seeing that the temperature outside was only 56 degrees with no sunshine in sight.  I know there are lots and lots of great things about Fall, and I appreciate most of them.   It’s just that I’m not ready to let go of summer, and the weather today is forcing me to recognize that the summer of 2016 is well and truly over.

The days are already getting shorter, which means that it won’t be long before I’m waking up in darkness.  I spent part of last evening digging out my sweaters and light-weight jackets since it’s already too cold to go outside without wearing one or the other.  Despite my careful attention, many of my annual flowers are looking tired and withered, and it’s only a matter of time before there will be a frost which kills them altogether.   Within weeks, I’ll actually have to turn on the heat and deal with the dry skin and static electricity it always generates despite our humidifier’s best efforts. I may be a Debby Downer, but honestly, I find all of this rather depressing.

But there’s no sense in fighting the inevitable and I certainly don’t want to spend the next few weeks wallowing in self-pity, so I have decided that I need to stop thinking quite so much about all the things I will miss about summer and focus instead on the things I really won’t miss at all.  Sure, it’s hard to forget about the backyard cookouts, the pleasure of jumping into the refreshingly cool water of a swimming pool on a hot summer day, and the convenience of walking outside anytime without having to put on any extra clothing whatsoever.  Not to mention the fresh fruit and tasty tomatoes.  But I’m going to try.

From now on, I’ll bear in mind that the arrival of Fall means I won’t have to circle the parking lot of the grocery store in the futile search for a parking space in the shade so the inside of my car won’t feel like an oven when I’m done shopping.  I can even buy ice cream without worrying about it melting before I reach home.  I’m going to remember that the time is rapidly approaching when I  won’t have to do any more yard work:  no watering the potted plants, deadheading the flowers, trimming the bushes, cutting back the ivy, and fighting a no-win battle against the weeds.

And best of all, no outdoor bugs.  I’m not sure if the cold weather kills them or, like bears, they simply hibernate all winter, but for whatever reason, they go away and I am grateful.  No more bees buzzing around my ears when I walk out the back door (they love the crepe myrtles we were silly enough to plant right next to the back porch), no more carpenter bees drilling holes in the eaves and (finally) no more mosquitoes!  If I were ever trying to argue that God does make mistakes, exhibit “A” would be mosquitoes.  The world would have been just fine without the pesky little buggers.

This new attitude must be working, because I’m already feeling better.  It’s time to break out the Fall decorations, stick a few pots of hardy mums and some pumpkins on the porch and hit the mall in search of a couple of new sweaters.  And then I’m going to come home and bake a pumpkin pie.

Mind the Gap

I have a long list of things I would like to change about myself, and I’m not just talking about my physical appearance.  I would love to have a good singing voice, and not to be quite so afraid of heights, and I wish that I had a better memory, especially for names.  But if I could change just one thing about myself, I would choose to stop worrying so much.  Because the fact is that I worry pretty much all the time, about almost everything.  And it doesn’t do me one bit of good, because the stuff I worry about rarely happens, and the bad things that happen in my life are usually things I didn’t see coming at all.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I spent the weekend with our family at my brother-in-law’s lake house, and on our first night there, we all piled into his boat for a “sunset cruise” which we enjoyed very much.  It was dark when we returned to the dock, and my brother-in-law warned us all to be careful stepping out of the boat because the dock could rock a bit.

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Being me, I immediately worried that I would drop my cell phone in the lake, and so I clutched it tightly as I carefully put my right foot on the deck.  Thankful that I had been able to maintain my balance, I quickly swung my left foot out and placed it, inadvertently, in a gap between the two parts of the dock.  My foot and lower leg plunged into the water, but my fall was stopped abruptly and painfully by my upper thigh, which was too big to fit through the gap.  It was the first time in my life that I was actually thankful for my chubby thighs.

I had worried that I would drop my cell phone (which I had brought along so I could take pictures of the lake) in the water, and that didn’t happen.  Even as I was suspended with one foot on the dock and the other foot in the lake, I still managed to hang on to my phone. It never crossed my mind that I might actually put my foot through a gap in the dock, even though that’s exactly what did happen.   Once again, I had wasted a lot of emotional energy worrying about all the wrong things.

That’s why I am making a very dedicated effort to stop worrying so much.  It’s not that I’m going to pretend that everything is always going to be fine and that nothing bad will ever happen, because I know better than that.  All of us have hard times in life, and all of us will experience our share of accidents and tragedies.  But constantly worrying about what could go wrong does nothing to prevent bad things from happening, and only serves to put too much focus on the negative aspects of life.

So I think what I need to do is learn to take sensible precautions, (such as the “mind the gap” signs I saw on the Irish Railway, warning passengers to beware of the gap between the train cars and the platform), but stop obsessing about every single thing that could possibly go wrong in any given situation.  Because life is too short and precious to waste it worrying about what might go wrong, when I could be enjoying all that is going so very right.